How to Make Better Reboots With The Help of Friedrich Nietzsche

Why do we reboot popular media? Of course, there’s a financial motivation — this thing did well, so we’ll try it again, and wring millions of dollars out of consumers’ nostalgia for Batman or whatever. But the business incentive for rebooting old properties only exists, or continues to exist, in a world where audiences want to see (or, at least, will begrudgingly pay to see) a hundred different versions of Spider-Man; the most popular of our told and retold stories are ones that stick in the collective imagination, changing and evolving to reflect the shape of our minds.

The reboot or “reimagining” exists in a difficult narrative crossroads. By necessity it has a relationship to the original, but it can’t have too close a relationship. On one hand, there are products with little-to-no acknowledgment that there even is an older iteration of the story — for Christopher Nolan Batman Begins, he does not Return and he certainly does not & Robin

Then there are reboots that are devoted to the past, winking at the audience in an attempt to define themselves in relation to the previous version, to acknowledge that the audience’s pleasure in watching comes mostly in the form of recognizing something they’ve seen before and want to revisit. As George Lazenby grimly remarks in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, “This never happened to the other fella.”

A third, increasingly common way to do a reboot is to just act like all of it is part of the same story. More and more “rebooted” material has followed the pattern of Star Trek films’ introduction of time travel as a way to justify telling new stories where Captain Kirk looks like Chris Pine instead of William Shatner. Maybe more accurately, this approach takes as its model the comic book company-wide reboot, in which a big scary monster resets time or whatever because everything has gotten too complicated. These are often furiously complex, intricate attempts to have these stories make narrative sense, while ignoring the easiest, most pretentious answer: time loops.

Consider, for a moment, Devilman and Neon Genesis Evangelion, both extremely horny and deeply sad anime franchises about the world ending over and over and over.

Why Do You Run?

In Go Nagai’s 1972 manga Devilman, high school student Akira Fudo is possessed by, then spiritually overpowers, a demon at the behest of his friend Ryo Asuka. Akira is turned into a Devilman — a human spirit with the transforming, uncontrollably violent body of a demon. Akira fights a series of vicious battles against other demons, and eventually discovers that Ryo is actually the angel Satan, intent on destroying humanity. After publicly revealing the existence of demons and inciting a global panic, Ryo/Satan accomplishes this goal. 

At the end of an apocalyptic war between demons and Devilmen — the remnants of humanity — Satan discovers his love for Akira and sees the error of his ways. It’s too late: Akira has died, and the until-now absent God returns to destroy the scorched Earth and reset time anew. Here’s the version of that ending from the most recent iteration of the story, Masaaki Yuasa’s 2018 Netflix series Devilman Crybaby, in which the existence of the moon (and then a second moon) is used to represent Satan’s failed rebellions. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.

This Time, I’ll Make You Happy

Meanwhile, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari has gone through quite a few apocalypses himself. In Hideaki Anno and Gainax’s original 1996 series, Shinji is pressed into service as the pilot of EVA-01, an enormous mech-slash-cyborg capable of fighting Angels, highly conceptual monsters that threaten to destroy the Earth, somehow. Shinji’s relationships are complicated and deeply psychosexual, whether they’re with the other pilots (Rei, Asuka, Kaworu) or adults (his father Gendo, his caretaker Misato). And, eventually, those relationships collapse on — or overtake — the fight against the Angels, as it becomes clear that something bigger and scarier is going on.

Each time the events of Evangelion occur, Shinji has to reckon with the concept of instrumentality — the idea that everyone could go back to being part of a primordial ooze, without any of the drama, suffering, or joy that comes from being an individual. And each time, the franchise reaches a different set of conclusions.

The original ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion delves deeply into Shinji’s psyche, concluding with the now-infamous image of the entire cast congregated in a wasteland, congratulating Shinji for realizing he deserves to live. The alternate film End of Evangelion reimagines the events as a massive and literal world-fuck, a grand scale ego death that, curiously, also produces a second moon — and posits that, even after Shinji attempts to choose existence, he will remain violent and irreparably broken. The ongoing Rebuild of Evangelion film series at first retells the same basic story, but eventually it veers into very different territory, including making the cyclical nature of Evangelion even clearer. “This time,” Kaworu says, “I’ll make you happy.”

Why Do I Run?

Devilman and Evangelion are sprawling, multi-decade franchises, stories tethered by the creative vision of one person (Nagai and Anno, respectively) but incorporating the artistic work and perspective of many, many others, whether it’s Masaaki Yuasa in the case of Devilman Crybaby or Kazuya Tsurumaki in the case of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies. Each riffs on a central set of ideas and themes — pacifism, love, and a complication of simple good-evil binaries in Devilman and depression, isolation, and connection in Neon Genesis Evangelion. And each revisits those ideas repeatedly in ways that imbue them with more meaning, like adding rings to a tree trunk. Often, those themes are allowed to be contradictory, in much the same way life is. Satan is evil, until he isn’t. Shinji is broken, until he isn’t.

In both franchises, the existence of the moon is a representation of the broader structure of the universe, something humans can’t quite understand and are fated to approach but never reach. Anno claims Devilman as an influence, while the post-apocalyptic red wasteland at the end of Crybaby is a clear homage to The End of Evangelion. By now, it’s hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg. Devilman and Evangelion are knotted together in a decidedly uncool, decidedly moving, greasy, horny, uncontrollably growing braid.

Crybaby and the Rebuild movies are definitely reboots of a sort. Certainly, they are related to new iterations of old Hollywood franchises. If you were feeling charitable, you could describe Crybaby as Yuasa’s Devilman in the same way the 2000s Spider-Man movies were Sam Raimi’s. But forcing the work to be in conversation and contradiction with itself creates a particular way of relating to the story, and of trying to understand what (if anything) is being said.

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Buckle Up Everyone, It’s Time To Talk About Nietzsche

If you, like most normal people, are at best glancingly familiar with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, you might think that his concept of “eternal return” refers to a genuine, metaphysical belief in recurrence, a sort of perpetual Big Crunch followed by a Big Bang where the same shit happens over and over. If you read The Gay Science, which is both the source of the most famous iteration of eternal return and a great alternate title for Devilman and Evangelion, you will realize that this is some bullshit.

Rather than a real thing Nietzsche believes happens, eternal return is more of a thought experiment, an exercise to gauge how you feel about your life and your values and connections. Nietzsche asks you to imagine a demon — let’s say Ryo Asuka — told you that you would be sentenced to repeat your life again and again. Would you want to relive everything over and over and over, knowing all of the choices you’ve made and all of the suffering you’ve experienced? In Nietzsche’s telling, the worthiest person is the one capable of answering “yes” to all of it — which is to say, the protagonist of one of our two horny, emo anime franchises.

What kind of person does it take to look at this grim, repetitive future and say “yes?” Probably either a resilient, hopeful, committed person, or some sort of psychotic. Evangelion suggests the latter — the Rebuild movies directly address the nature of the viewer’s ongoing engagement with the story, bluntly titled You Can (Not) Advance and You Can (Not) Redo. Increasingly, critiquing fans of Evangelion has become part of the DNA of Evangelion itself. But Devilman posits the former, a genuine hero trying to make things better in the face of chaos. Several times throughout Crybaby, the characters explain why they run track, even though humans are nowhere near as fast as animals or machines or demons. Akira’s friend Miki says it clearly: “When I run forward, maybe something behind me will change. Even if it’s trivial, even if it’s just a tiny bit.”

Both Devilman and Evangelion are supposedly coming to an end soon. Nagai’s ongoing manga Devilman Saga, which takes place in a cyberpunk dystopian future, has been advertised as the “final” component of the Devilman story, while the Rebuild series of Evangelion films will conclude in 2020 with the release of Evangelion: 3.0+1.0. The sense of finality is compelling, especially when coupled with the promise that some sort of conclusion give meaning to an endless series of loops. But this is silly. When Shinji rejects instrumentality, he admits that life as a human “will just lead me to the same conclusions over and over,” but that’s the whole point of life as a human. The story never really ends.